by Kaveh L. Afrasiabi
President Trump has resorted to a policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran, which has created a zero-sum game bereft of common interests. Nevertheless, chances are that the complex and convoluted political realities of the Middle East will push him in the alternative direction of exploratory talks with Iran on the region’s endemic crises. The precipitating factor will likely be Yemen, where a relentless Saudi-led military campaign has, since early 2015, produced an enormous humanitarian catastrophe.
There is a new hope for peace in Yemen amid increased Saudi bombardments. Martin Griffiths, the UN’s special envoy for Yemen, was upbeat in his recent report to the UN Security Council, announcing the agreement of Yemen’s warring parties to meet in Sweden in coming weeks to discuss a UN framework for negotiations. The Houthi leader, Mohammad al-Houthi, has spoken in favor of a truce and his side’s willingness to halt missile attacks if the other side contain their air strikes. The British, meanwhile, have prepared a draft Security Council resolution that calls for an immediate ceasefire, adamantly opposed by the Saudis, who have successfully delayed it.
On November 18, Chris Wallace of Fox News asked Trump in an interview what he would do if the new Congress blocked arms sales to the Saudis or took other steps to end the Yemen war. The president replied:
I want to see [the] Yemen [war] end. But it takes two to tango. Iran has to end it also. Iran is a different country from when I took over, far weakened because of what I did with the…Iran nuclear deal. I want to stop but I want Iran to stop also.
On the surface, Trump seems to be offering a public rationalization of U.S. policy on Yemen. But that policy is in the throes of re-evaluation in light of the U.S. call for a ceasefire and, more importantly, the Pentagon’s decision to cut off air re-fueling for the Saudi fighter jets, jolting Riyadh. A supporter of the Houthi-held government in Sana’a, Iran is likely to agree to direct talks with the United States on Yemen, given that such a dialogue has been going on for some time between Iran and the European powers. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has proposed a four-point peace plan that calls for a humanitarian corridor and a ceasefire, followed by political dialogue among the country’s warring parties.
For sure, there are significant barriers to a U.S.-Iran dialogue on Yemen. The White House hawks, led by National Security Advisor John Bolton may oppose it for the obvious reasons, but the reaction from the State Department could be different. Already, there are signs of a fissure between Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over the recent oil exemptions that have weakened the Iran oil embargo. Pompeo would likely have the upper hand on a Yemen peace plan that includes Iran.
The challenge, of course, is how to bring Saudi Arabia on board, given its preference for a military solution that removes all vestiges of Iranian influence from the region. The Saudis now face an explicit U.S. call for a cease-fire and, after Jamal Khashoggi’s cold-blooded murder, the Trump administration’s decision to end logistical support for the Saudi air campaign. Even the UAE, the key Saudi ally in the three-year old campaign, appears to be willing to give diplomacy a chance, further isolating Riyadh.
The Saudis may well continue their military campaign and ignore the new external pressures, including Germany’s halt in arms sales to the kingdom. The United States is now on the verge of issuing a final report on Khashoggi’s murder in light of the CIA’s conclusion that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) ordered the execution. The chips are quickly piling up against the crown prince, and he may be replaced in the interest of the state. Regardless of whether MbS leaves or stays on in a weakened capacity, the fate of the ill-conceived Saudi-led war on Yemen hangs in the balance, which is why Trump’s announcement in the Wallace interview is significant.
Let’s assume that Tehran is willing to play ball and use its influence to convince the Houthis to consent to a meaningful dialogue for the sake of a new power-sharing arrangement in war-torn Yemen that perhaps looks like the current political set-up in Lebanon. Then the pressure on Saudi Arabia to stop the air strikes and consent to a ceasefire will be difficult to ignore. The two regional powerhouses would then be brokering peace in an echo of the “twin pillar” context of the 1970s, with the U.S. superpower acting as the hegemonic stabilizer through offshore balancing. After all, the US is overstretched vis-a-vis Russia and China and simply does not have the power of the purse or the military stomach for another Middle East campaign. Washington’s current efforts against Tehran increasingly resemble deterrence rather than rollback, another sign of evolution in Trump policy.
If all parties can focus on ending the conflict in Yemen and then use the success as a confidence-building measure to de-escalate tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, 2019 could be a better year for regional peace than this year. Certainly, that is what the Rouhani administration is striving for. Such a development may be a prelude for a new round of US-Iran diplomacy as well.
For the latter to happen, however, the Trump administration must bracket its current demonization of Iran, which runs counter to U.S. national interests as so many experts have noted. Indeed, the cause of peace in Yemen should be regarded as a common interest between the United States and Iran, which warrants an incremental reduction in the negative stereotyping of Iran by White House hawks.
In addition to Oman, a traditional interlocutor between Iran and its adversaries, Iraq under its new leadership can also play a constructive role, particularly since many Houthis look to Iraq’s Shiite leaders for inspiration. Ideally, a breakthrough on Yemen can herald a new chapter in the relationship between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on the one hand and Iran and Iraq on the other.
Iran has long advocated a collective security framework that the GCC states, dependent on the United States for their security, have rejected, in part because they view Iran as a major source of their insecurity. But times are changing. In the post-Islamic State milieu, Iran should consider the merits of regional stability and cooperative security with the help of extra-regional forces instead of falling back on its anti-hegemonic identity. The country’s national security interests dictate compromise and flexibility, particularly since Iran is fully convinced of the limits of looking to the East as an alternative survival strategy. In other words, there is no alternative to a healthy balance between East and West.
After 40 years of relentless hostility, both the United States and Iran have a decent opportunity to mend ties by cooperating on conflict-resolution in Yemen, similar to the situation with Afghanistan after September 11. This time around, politicians on both sides know of the perils of missed opportunities and false steps, such as George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” speech in 2002. Prudent diplomacy focuses on mutual interests. Failure to do so is a recipe for disaster, for the millions of suffering people in Yemen and for the region as a whole. A unique opportunity for peace is on the horizon, with multiple implications for bilateral relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia as well as the United States and Iran. It should be seized by all parties as soon as possible.
Kaveh Afrasiabi has taught at Tehran University and Boston University and is a former consultant to the UN Program on Dialogue Among Civilizations. He is the author of several books on Iran, Islam, and the Middle East, most recently Iran Nuclear Accord and the Remaking of the Middle East (2018) and the co-author of the forthcoming Trump and Iran: Containment to Confrontation.